Three questions to understand why you aren’t delegating

Three questions to understand why you aren’t delegating
By Paul Clifford

If you are a keen student of politics as I am you will have noticed that some of our recent Prime Ministers have at times (some more often than others) failed to successfully execute the important leadership tool of delegation. 

Kevin Rudd was miserable at it and our current PM, Tony Abbott seems to struggling with it too (take his recent rumoured micro-management attempt over Julie Bishop’s trip to Lima to discuss climate change, and Abbott’s Chief of staff Peta Credlin’s rumoured micro-management of Liberal Party ministers). It's time we address some aspects that make delegation so difficult.


Delegation seemed to come much easier to Hawke and Howard.  Many argue that the 24/7 media cycle makes minister slip ups more damaging to the government’s reputation than they used to be, hence the need for greater control and reduced amounts of delegation.  However we saw with Kevin Rudd how taking control and refusing to delegate can cause exactly what he was trying to guard against.  More than damaging reputation, the failure to delegate can lead to obliteration.

In my mind this is a reminder to leaders in organisations to give careful consideration to the case for and against delegation.  Delegation will lead to occasional isolated mistakes but a failure to delegate can create longer term systemic problems of a far greater magnitude - undermining morale, increasing employee turnover and hampering organisational performance. 

So what stops us from delegating?  Here are some questions to reflect on:

1. Are you so highly invested in the outcome that you tell yourself things must go your way?    

In the U2 song ‘Dirty Day’ Bono sings “You can hold on to something so tight you’ve already lost it”.  How much of this holds true for us?  Have you ever become so passionate about something that you lost perspective?  You decided that your desired outcome had to happen your way.  If you get to this point it is going to be hard for you to delegate because the desire to personally control the outcome is going to be so much stronger.  You are going to take more and more on yourself.  The problem is that often achieving the outcome we want can only happen with the assistance of other people.  Many important goals are too big for one person to achieve alone and sometimes you are not the most capable person given what needs to be done to secure the outcome.  It’s fair to say Kevin Rudd found this out the hard way. 

2. Do you believe others can learn new skills or is your belief that you’ve either got it or you don’t?

If you don’t believe people can learn new skills you are not likely to give them the opportunities to do so.  Whilst I believe in the basis of the strengths model – that we are most productive and energised when we execute our strengths - I don’t agree that this also means we should shy away from developing ourselves, particularly when we stand to gain a lot from such development.  Critically, I also believe with concerted effort and determination we can develop competence where previously we were deficient. 

If you are holding on to the view that people have either got the skills or they don’t, a further question to reflect on here is, is your stance based on sufficient evidence or has it been formed on the basis of a few bad experiences?  Sometimes we undermine our own success by holding on to inaccuracies formed on the basis of a small number of personal, unrepresentative experiences.

3. Do you enjoy the technical work too much?

Many managers get promoted from technical roles into managerial roles because they were successful in the technical execution.  Some no longer have time to do the technical, yet they find it hard to delegate.  Why?  Because in some cases their self-concept is defined by mastery of the technical.  It becomes even harder to delegate if they are struggling with the managerial side of the role.  The discomfort in the managerial role strengthens their desire to remind themselves of their competence by going back and demonstrating their mastery of the technical.  The failure to delegate will assist in holding on to a sense of competence but undermine their ability to successfully transition into the manager role.  

The above are just a sample of some of our beliefs and competing motivations that may be getting in the way of delegating.  Your next question is likely to be “what do I do if I have answered yes to any or all of these questions?”  

How to begin delegating

Firstly it is important to recognise that even though we may have answered yes to some or all of the above questions; our desire to delegate may still be strong.  We may wish we could let go of technical work and manage the insecurities that come with doing tasks we are not yet competent to do.  We may wish we had more faith in people’s ability to develop their capabilities.  We may wish we could tolerate things not always going our way. 

If we do believe in the benefits of delegation and wish we were doing it more, we must identify what our assumptions and competing priorities are and break their stranglehold. 

Sometimes we want to delegate yet a competing priority to control and guarantee the outcome keeps us from doing it.  If we are becoming so highly invested in the outcome that we are taking over control of every detail we must reflect on the effectiveness of this strategy to achieve our outcomes.  So the questions we must pose to ourselves are:  Is taking on more myself really going to guarantee the outcome?  Do I have all the necessary skills and the time to achieve the outcome alone?  Is the outcome really much more dependent on the actions of others who may no longer wish to assist me now given my unwillingness to trust them by delegating?

Sometimes we want to delegate yet our assumptions such as ‘people have either got the skills or they don’t’ hold us back.  If we don’t believe others are capable of developing, is this a position based on sufficient data or a couple of bad experiences?  Could there be other factors at play such as your perceived lack of time and capability to develop others that serve you well to hold on to your position?  Can you afford to maintain your belief on this issue?  Can you afford to deny others the opportunity to develop and risk losing staff, have no effective succession plan and narrow opportunities to generate revenue and/or service outcomes?                       

Finally, sometimes we want to delegate yet a competing priority to be seen as competent hinders us from doing it.  If we find ourselves in a management position refusing to delegate the technical work to create an ongoing sense of mastery, we could do well to reflect on why we accepted the management role in the first place.  If we know why we made the change and we continue to believe that was the right choice, then we may need to tolerate a period of incompetence.  One cannot expect to move into a different type of role and not have some developmental challenges.  Are you simply being too hard on yourself?  Do you need some assistance to help you develop mastery of the management and let go of the attachment you have understandably had to the technical?      

Delegation is a highly valuable tool that can boost performance significantly.  In an era of doing more with less it is wise for managers to seriously consider how it can be leveraged to improve organisational outcomes.  What holds us back from utilising it effectively often lies within our own minds – our assumptions and competing motivations.  If these can be recognised and worked through, it will free us up to use delegation to create mutual benefit for ourselves, our staff and our organisations.     


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Guest Wednesday, 26 June 2019